Cardinals take a critical step

November, 16, 2008
11/16/08
10:37
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

 
 Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
 Arizona's J.J. Arrington celebrates with Steve Breaston after scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of a 26-20 win over Seattle Sunday.

SEATTLE -- The Arizona Cardinals had little trouble putting into perspective the significance of their latest victory.

Beating the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field, their personal house of horrors before Sunday, represented more than just another division victory in the ragged NFC West.

Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett defined the 26-20 victory as payback for the way Seattle allegedly ran up the score against the Cardinals here last season.

Defensive end Chike Okeafor described the victory as a "hostile takeover" within the division.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about taking another step toward becoming a playoff team. Quarterback Kurt Warner reveled in earning a hard-fought victory in a place where he had always struggled.

But the words that resonated most came from the Seahawks' locker room, where Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu easily could have slapped an asterisk on the Cardinals' performance by pointing to the long list of Seattle injuries. Instead, Tatupu acknowledged the obvious: Arizona is a playoff-caliber team learning how to win.

"As much as I would like to blame us for what happened, they are, you know, what, 7-3?" Tatupu said. "They have a good team and they've been playing that way the whole year."

The Cardinals defense still has to prove it can close out games consistently. Their offense needs to continue finding ways to manufacture yardage on the ground. Warner's seventh delay-of-game infraction of the season complicated the Cardinals' efforts to run out the clock late, proving that ill-timed penalties remain a concern.

But to hold up the Cardinals' flaws as evidence of their playoff unworthiness is to miss the point. The playoffs don't begin for nearly two months. The Cardinals are better now than they were in September and logic says they'll be better come January -- as long as Warner stays healthy.

"They've been a good team," Tatupu said, "but they've been one of those teams in the past where they get into tight games and they kind of like [say], 'Oh, hopefully we can win this game,' instead of, 'Oh, we're going to win this game.'

"That's what we saw today. We saw that side of their team and they said, 'Hey, whatever, we're just going to come out and tee it up and play the next play.' You have to give them credit."

Eight more things we learned about the Cardinals and Seahawks:

1. Size matters.

I'm thinking the Seahawks won't go out and draft another undersized cornerback. Kelly Jennings, chosen 31st overall in 2006, competed admirably and even made plays on the ball in the second half, but watching the Cardinals' big receivers play keep-away showed that size matters.

Six-foot, three-inch Larry Fitzgerald and 6-1 Anquan Boldin made the most of their height advantages. They combined for 23 receptions covering 337 yards. They turned the Seahawks' cornerbacks into irrelevant bystanders, particularly in the first half. And they turned risky throws into long gainers -- throws that might have been interceptions if directed toward lesser receivers.

"We felt like we had great coverage, great rushing, and they still were able to come up with a catch or a big run," the 5-11, 180-pound Jennings said.

2. An NFL suspension could loom.

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had choice words for Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson after absorbing what Hasselbeck thought was an illegal hit in the second quarter.

"Oh, yeah, he did," Wilson said. "He said, 'Good hit, but expect something in the mail.' "

Wilson had racked up more personal-foul penalties from 2001 through last season than any NFL player. His hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards drew a $25,000 fine from the league and a warning that future infractions could result in stiffer penalties, presumably a suspension.

The Cardinals will need their hardest-hitting defender against the New York Giants' bruising ground game in Week 12.

"It's football," Hasselbeck said. "It's a violent game, it's a physical game. The only thing that makes me feel good is knowing there will be some fines coming out in a couple days."

Referee Bill Carollo and crew did not penalize the Cardinals on the play, but that would not prevent the league from meting out punishment.

Wilson said he wasn't sure if the hit was helmet to helmet, but he hoped it affected Hasselbeck.

"We wanted to come out and get some hits on him," Wilson said. "I hope he saw them all. I'm pretty sure our defensive line did a great job of getting after him and getting hits on him."

3. Warner remains an MVP candidate.

Warner set a franchise record with his fourth consecutive 300-yard game. He already owns a share of the NFL record, having hit 300 yards in six consecutive games while with the St. Louis Rams in 2000.

Steve Young (1998) and Rich Gannon (2002) have also done it six games in a row. Joe Montana (1982) and Kerry Collins (2001 and 2002) have done it five straight games.

Warner completed 32 of 44 passes for 395 yards and a touchdown against Seattle. The offense bogged down in the red zone for a third consecutive week, but Warner is still completing better than 70 percent of his passes this season.

"I think they've given him a little more freedom than they have in the past," Tatupu said. "You see him come to the line and checking (to different plays).

"He's a stud. He doesn't care what's going on. He's going to keep playing, keep fighting and those guys believe in him and it doesn't hurt to have that receiving corps. They're not too bad."

4. Officiating question
s linger.

Whisenhunt seemed puzzled when referee Tony Corrente's crew waved off four penalties during the Cardinals' 29-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.

The Cardinals watched Sunday as referee Carollo assessed eight penalties against Arizona and only one against Seattle. Carollo has now assessed one penalty against Seattle in his last two games at Qwest Field.

Arizona has been one of the NFL's most-penalized teams in recent seasons. Seattle has generally ranked among the least penalized.

But it doesn't look good when officials appear to throw flags on request. It happened Sunday when Warner threw an incomplete pass on a third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter. Officials failed to throw a flag for intentional grounding until well after Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson and others lobbied them demonstrably.

5. Hasselbeck can take a hit.

The Seahawks managed only 196 yards and a 1-for-9 conversion rate on third downs in Hasselbeck's first game since Oct. 5. That wasn't good, but Hasselbeck threw well enough early in the game to suggest the offense can improve over the remaining games. He also proved he could take punishment.

Hasselbeck scrambled effectively and sacrificed his body for extra yardage. He bounced up from hard hits and seemed to throw the ball with good velocity.

"I'm exhausted," Hasselbeck said. "I wish I could have finished the game stronger. I don't' think I finished the game strong. That is disappointing. I feel like I let my teammates down that way."

Hasselbeck's bulging disk back injury, which cost him the previous five games, did not appear to be the problem. His stamina figures to improve the more he plays.

"I don't really have an answer for you," he said. "The fourth quarter just felt different than the first."

6. The Cardinals can clinch the division title in Week 12.

A home victory over the Giants would deliver a division title to the Cardinals if the rest of the division loses in Week 12.

Even with a loss to the Giants, Arizona is all but assured to win the NFC West.

Dockett reveled in the thought.

"One more division game and we can put our title up and it's going to be the best feeling in the world, dog," the defensive lineman said.

"To be here five years and never win a division and never win in Seattle, to never win more than eight games, to never have a chance to be in the playoffs, to have an opportunity to go home and defend our turf against the New York Giants and clinch a playoff berth, that's going to be probably one of the best feelings of my life. We'll be ready."

7. Role players are stepping up for Arizona.

Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked off two passes. Cornerback Ralph Brown also played well in coverage for Arizona.

"When you win games late in the year, when you want to have a chance to be a playoff team, you have to have guys step up," Whisenhunt said.

"I feel like that's what we did today. Ralph Brown stepped up. Dominique stepped up as a rookie player. We had a number of guys that have done that this year. That's very exciting."

8. Seattle realizes the gig is up.

The Seahawks are finished in the NFC West this season after owning the division since 2004. Coach Mike Holmgren plans to address the matter at length when he meets with the team Monday.

"I will talk to them at length about it and we'll establish some new goals," Holmgren said. "How they approach it is going to be very important."

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